Into the West: To Save Them All
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When Tonja Miller left Ines Rülke at the dry goods store, she went straight to her campsite and packed up her things. Tonja had never liked staying in hotels, even when she was friends with the owner like Patrick Gordon, who owned the Black Coyote in Sharon Springs. She much preferred sleeping under the open sky in the fresh air.
Tonja had used this same campsite for the last few years whenever she came to visit her friend Jenny, Ines’ daughter. It was a great spot next to a bluff out in the valley near town. There was a small stream nearby for fresh water and there were always a few fish to be caught if she wanted. There was spot behind a big boulder by the bluff face where she could store her things out of sight, should someone even come this way.
The local wildlife was fairly decent. No matter what the season, Tonja could easily scare up a rabbit, a quail, or something suitable for dinner if she didn’t have a taste for fish. There were not a lot of trees, but enough to provide a decent wind break, wood for fires, or a lean-to when she wanted one.
She loved it here, even if it was lonely at times. She had come to prefer being alone to being with people who made her feel like she had to pretend to be different than she was to make them comfortable. Thoughts of her youth, living with her aunt, came to mind.
Tonja fastened her saddle bags and bedroll to her saddle and took extra care to make sure her campsite was cleared, leaving as little trace of her having been there as possible. She had spent a lot of time camping out on the open range the last few years while traveling around with the Wild West show. She had setting up and breaking down her camp down to a science.
When she was ready, she took hold of her horse’s harness and gently pulled him to her. Her horse knew what was coming as they did this every time before Tonja mounted him. The two touched foreheads and just stood together for a moment, just breathing.
When Tonja had started earning her own money, the first thing she bought was her own horse. He had been a symbol to her of her independence and her ability to take care of herself without help from anyone else.
She had come to depend on her horse more than the people in her life, so she always made sure he knew just how much she appreciated everything he did for her. Which is why she started thanking him every time before she rode him.
For the first few months, Tonja did not have a name for him. The other performers in the Wild West show kept giving her suggestions: Fast Draw, Tawny, Dancer, Lightenin’, and many others.
Tonja just shook her head and said, “He’ll tell me what his name is when he’s ready.” Until that time came, she just called him “My Boy”.
The Wild West show had just finished a performance in Missouri and everyone had retired for the night. Tonja did not sleep in the camp with the other but chose to go out in the range on her own and camp. That night she had a disturbing nightmare.
Tonja was riding hard in the dark through a wooded area with someone chasing her. She turned in her saddle to see who was behind her but all she could see was a dark figure on a darker horse. She turned back around and rode hard and fast for what seemed like hours.
The trees were getting thicker and her horse had to weave quickly at times to avoid a collision. The air was thick with a damp mossy smell that seemed to crawl over Tonja’s skin and tried to outrun their tormentor.
Tonja hoped they had gaining some ground in their dead run and she turned again in her saddle to see if the dark figure was still giving chase. Just as she leaned off balance to turn in the saddle, her horse made a sharp turn around a tree.
Tonja was not prepared for the sudden change in directions and was sent flying from her saddle. When she hit the ground, it knocked the wind out of her and left her dazed for just a moment. When she gathered her wits about her, she looked around frantically for her horse, but he was nowhere to be seen.
The stranger came riding up on her and pulled his horse to an abrupt halt, just inches from her; showering her with dirt and debris. Tonja reached for her sidearm. Her hand hit the leather, but to her horror, her holster was empty.
Tonja looked at her pursuer, but all she could see was a dark outline of a rider on a horse. It was almost as if he was made of the night and the all the scary things that hide there. The rider just sat there as his horse pawed at the ground and huffed like it was mad it had to stop the chase. Then the dark rider slowly drew down on her.
All Tonja could do was sit there as she heard the stranger pull back the hammer on his revolver. She let out a sigh of resignation as she waited for him to pull the trigger. She closed her eyes and breathed in the moist night air.
“Tonight is as good a night as any to die,” she said.
At that moment, her horse came running out from the trees and charged the stranger and his horse. He reared and kicked at the stranger, sending him flying from his mount. Unfortunately for him, his foot was caught in the stirrup, leaving him half hanging from the side of his horse.
Tonja’s horse continued his attack, kicking and biting at the other horse, causing it to dance over its entangled rider. Suddenly, the dark horse took off at a dead run dragging its rider with him. As Tonya sat, watching in disbelief as the dark figures disappear through the trees she felt a soft nose and warm breath on her neck.
Tonja turned and looked at her saviour. She stood up and wrapped her arms around her horse’s neck and began to thank him profusely.
She moved around in front of him and held his harness as she placed her forehead on his.
“Oh my dear Lord,” said Tonja. “I haven’t been that scared in all my life.”
Tonja pulled back and looked him in the eyes as she said, “You’re my hero.”
Her horse started nodding his head, yes, just as something woke her from her dream. Tonja sat straight up and looked around. Her horse had gotten loose from where she had tied him off for the night and was standing over her with a copperhead snake hanging dead in its teeth. It was still nodding its head, beating the snake on a nearby rock.
Tonja jumped up and began calming down her horse. She took the dead snake from him and quickly checked him over to make sure he had not been bit.
When she was sure he was going to be fine, she took hold of his harness and looked him in the eyes and said, “My God, boy. You really are my hero.”
Just like in her dream, the horse began to nod his head, yes. Tonja had to laugh. Suddenly she felt a strange connection to her horse. With an indescribable certainty she knew his name.
“Hero,” she said, with a touch awe in her voice at what was happening.
When she said the name, her horse once again nodded his head, yes. Tonja leaned down and touched her forehead to his as she scratched his chin and whispered, “My Hero.”
Tonja often thought back to that time as she stood with Hero like this, foreheads together, breathing in his musky scent, gently scratching at his jaw as she had done so many times before. Over the years, she had told only a few people that story. Most laughed at her and said she was just spinning a yarn for them, everyone but Old Crow.
Old Crow was one of the “tamed” Indians who traveled with the Wild West show. He was a true believer in signs and dreams.
“You had a meeting of the spirits with your horse. That is rare, especially for one such as you,” he said. “You are very lucky. Hero will be your guide and protector if you let him. Treat him well and he will always be there when you need him.”
Hero huffed a few times as Tonja stood there with him, lost in her memories again. She relaxed and turned her head to rest her cheek against his face. She ran a gloved hand down the side of his head and over his nose before pulling back to look him in the eyes.
“Thank you, Hero” she said.
Then Tonja gave him a quick kiss on his forehead before walking to his side to step up into the saddle. Once she was seated, Tonja took a moment to just sit and look around the vast Kansas valley.
She had come out here last night to think over what Ines had told her. Her mind had been reeling with everything since Ines confessed that she and Jenny were actually the most wanted bandits everyone was gunning for in the Kansas territory. She still had trouble believing it. The whole time Patrick had been accusing her of being one of the bandits, it was actually the two women standing just a few feet from them as they argued, how ironic.
She had given Ines her word that she would help her and her family but a part of her still wondered if it was the right thing to do. Tonja had been friends with Jenny for a few years. She was like the sister Tonja never had and her parents had become like family too. She thought she knew them, knew what kind of people they were, but now . . . she was not so sure.
When Ines made her confession, it took a good while to sink in. She never would have guessed that these wonderful people would even contemplate doing something so wrong. When Ines explained why, Tonja could sympathise with them, to a point. Tonja was still struggling with the whole idea. If you do something bad for the right reasons, was it still a bad thing? In Tonja’s mind, it was.
And yet, when Ines asked her to help them throw the lawmen off their trail by helping her commit one last robbery, Tonja didn’t even stop think about her answer before agreeing to help. She heard her friends — her family — were in trouble and her knee-jerk reaction was to help them . . . no matter what. But now that she had some time to think about what all she had agreed to do, she was having second thoughts.
Tonja had always lived by a strict moral code. It was what got her through some of the worst times in her life. She never knew her father and her mother died when she was young. Her mother’s sister, Rebecca, took her in when she was about 8 years old, but she never had much use for the girl. She gave her a place to sleep, food to eat, and clothes to wear, but there was never any love there.
Tonja took solace in the woods near their home. She would go out hunting practically everyday with a pistol and a rifle. Over the years, she got so good with her firearms that at 13 years old she started asking to join the shooting contests held by the gun peddlers at the town fairs.
At first, they refused, but eventually she wore them down and they let her enter as a lark. They thought she was cute and could never win, so they let her compete for their amusement. But then . . . she started winning.
Tonja became a novelty for the gun peddlers. They would put out flyers about the child sharpshooter and people would come from miles around just to see her shoot. Eventually, the traveling Wild West show heard about her and asked her aunt if she could travel with them as part of their show. Her aunt was more than willing to part with the girl.
For the next several years, Tonja traveled with the Wild West show, thrilling crowds and making a name for herself. She was making more and more money for her performances, but anything she made, past a small allowance she was given, was sent to her aunt. As long as she was still legally Tonja’s guardian, most of the money she made went to Rebecca for safe keeping to prevent Tonja from squandering it.
It was expected that her aunt was keeping Tonja’s earnings safe for her until she became of legal age and was considered mature enough to manage her own money.
When she turned 18, the show started giving Tonja her full pay. She was shocked at how much money she had been earning compared to the pittance she had been getting for her allowance. She sent a telegram straight away to her aunt, asking to take over managing her own funds that had been sent to her over the years.
It took a few weeks, but she finally received a reply. The telegram read, “Room, board, and essentials for five years, paid in full.” She knew her money was gone. Tonja considered hating the woman, or getting a lawyer to go after her money, but she just never could muster the emotions to bother with it all. It was better to just be done with her. As she saw it, it was a small price to pay for her peace of mind in the end.
Her aunt had always been a sad, sour, old woman. She remembers her mother speaking of her sister a few times. She said, when they were kids, her mother was always so thrilled to have an older sister. She always wanted to be with her, play games, have her teacher her how to wear her hair, or read her stories. But her sister had no interest in any of that, or in her.
When they were older, her aunt quickly married and moved away. For her mother, that was the end of their relationship. After her mother died and with no other living relatives, that she knew of, Tonja was sent to live with her aunt Rebecca.
Tonja shook her head to clear the memories. She wasn’t sure why she kept getting side track with ghosts from the past when she had more pressing matters to think about.
She let Hero take his time meandering back toward Sharon Springs. She was not in a hurry and she needed time to think things through.
On one hand, she had already given Ines her word that she would help the Rülkes, but Ines had made it clear that if she changed her mind at any point, no one in the family would hold it against her. They knew they were asking a lot of her. Asking someone to set aside their personal moral code to help you commit a crime was a big ask.
On the other hand, what they were doing was helping a lot of good people, families, who could lose their homesteads if they didn’t do what they were doing. The whole situation was so convoluted.
“I really wish you talked, Hero. I could use some good advice right about now,” said Tonja as she reached down and patted Hero’s neck. He responded by throwing his head back and whinnying.
For the next good while, the two just traveled in silence while Tonja pondered her situation.
* * *
Fritz and Jenny had been able to sneak out of town on foot and make their way unseen to a hidden campsite near the valley outside of town. In one of the bluffs overlooking the valley, was a small cave set back on a ledge about twelve feet above the valley floor. Most of the ledge was hidden by blackberry bushes that grew along a good deal of the ledge in front of the cave.
Ines and Jenny happened upon the cave a few years after moving to town. They had noticed the blackberry bushes on their way back to town and had climbed up the bluff face to pick some berries to make jam. When they found the cave, they decided to hide the entrance with tumbleweeds and brush to try to keep their find a secret. As far as they knew, no one else had found their hiding spot.
On a subsequent trip, they found a small passageway in the bluff where they were able to get a horse and a rider through, single file. They were able to ride straight up to the ledge. As long as you didn’t shy from tight places, it was much better than climbing up the bluff face.
Once they had been fairly certain no one else was using the cave, they began stowing basic supplies there. Whenever they passed through the area, they usually came by to check on things. Over time they were able to outfit the cave with most basic necessities and even used it to store their old theater trappings. They still had trunks of costumes, props, and an assortment of makeup that included wigs and other hair pieces to completely change any actor into the character of their choice.
Since Fritz and Jenny had traveled on foot this time, it was not a problem getting through the passage to the back of the ledge. They had emerged from the passageway and worked their way behind the bushes to the cave entrance. Fritz cleared away the brush and bits of wood they had placed to brace up their camouflage so he and Jenny could go inside. It took a bit of work to get it all back in place once inside, but he managed. He had plenty of practice over the years. They felt their way through the caves entrance and around the sharp right turn into the main cavern. Fritz opened a trunk near the back wall and took out a couple of bedrolls and a candle in a tin holder.
Fritz struck a match on the back of the candle holder and lit the wick in what was left of the old candle. The tiny flame was all their dared have tonight. He and Jenny set up camp and settled in to wait.
Jenny sat cross legged on her bedding. She had to shift and reach under the blankets to move a few errant stones she had missed when rolling out her bed. She settled back in place and pulled the carpet bag she had brought with her into her lap. She opened the bag and took out a few tins of meat and a fresh, crusty loaf of bread. Jenny tore some bread off the loaf for each of them and put the rest away while her father opened the tins.
Fritz proudly pulled out the can opener he had received as a gift from Ezra J. Warner himself, the man who invented it. At least, that is what the letter read that had come with can opener asking the Rülkes to consider selling them in their Dry Goods Store. Fritz smiled at Jenny and raised his left eyebrow a few times. It was a habit of his when he was trying to get a smile from her. When she finally smiled and chuckled at his antics, he smiled back and then began opening the cans.
As Fritz sawed around the can lids, Jenny pulled out two spoons and wiped them off with her handkerchief. They dared not make a fire tonight. It was too easy for light to be seen from a distance out in the valley at a night. They knew even lighting the candle was a risk, but the cave was pitch black without it. Even with the brush covering the mouth of the cave and the sharp turn in the caves passage, they didn’t want to take the chance someone would see a a light flickering and come investigate.
Many people traveled through this valley going to and from Sharon Springs. If anyone found them here, their plan would be a bust. Besides that, the ventilation was not all that great in this part of the cave. The last thing they needed to do was smoke themselves out just to have a bit of warm food tonight.
When Fritz had both cans open, he handed one to Jenny and she gave him his share of the bread. The pair ate in silence, each lost in their thoughts and neither were in the mood to share at the moment. When they finished their meal, they put away their tins and lay back on the bedrolls.
“We should try to get some sleep before Tonja shows up with the wagon,” said Fritz. He then added, “If she agreed to help us.”
Jenny tsked at her father then said, “I know Tonja will help us. It is not in her nature to refuse a friend in need. She would die for us.”
Fritz was shocked at his daughters words and quickly turned his head and spit in the dirt three times as he said, “Toi! Toi! Toi!” Then he look back at Jenny with a scowl.
“Jenny, why would you even say such a thing? It is inviting bad luck to speak of such . . . such . . . bad omens!”
“Papa, Tonja is a very smart, capable woman. She can take care of herself, she has had to most of her life.”
“I know that, but the devil is always listening, daughter. You do not need to say such things to invite his attention into our lives,” said Fritz as he ran hand nervously through his hair.
Jenny could tell her father was genuinely upset by what she had said.
“I am sorry, Papa. You are right. I will be more careful with what I say.”
Fritz looked at his daughter and gave her a slight smile as he reached out and touched the side of her face and said, “That is all I ask.”
Jenny smiled back at her father.
Fritz dropped his hand and turned to straighten out his bedroll.
“We should get some sleep while we can,” he said. Fritz lied back on his side and rested his head on his arm.
The bit of candle they had left quickly burned away and a darkness enveloped the interior of the cave. Lying there in the pitch blackness, Jenny’s mind would not stop going over their plan. She hated bringing her friend Tonja into their family problems, but she couldn’t think of another way out of this mess.
After a few minutes, Jenny could hear her father beginning to softly snore. The sound reminded her of a cat purring. She actually thought it was a pleasant sound. He was never a loud snorer, that was her mother. Jenny and her father used to tease Ines that she could snore the shingles right off the roof, but even Ines’ loud snoring didn’t bother Jenny, she found it comforting.
Jenny rolled to her side and closed her eyes as she listened to her father’s snores echoing slightly off the cave walls. She was asleep in no time.